By Ian Dipple Friday 30 August 2013 Updated: 30/08 10:24
IT HAS survived two world wars, a global economic disaster and the rise of television to today stand as one of the jewel’s in Redditch’s crown.
But as The Palace Theatre marks its centenary, a brief look at the past 100 years shows how the Alcester Street venue came so close to being lost into the annals of history like so much of Redditch’s heritage.
“The fact it’s managed to survive 100 years is pretty amazing in this day and age,” Paul Hughes, the Palace’s marketing and promotions officer told the Standard.
“We want people to be able to celebrate it, not just for the entertainment but the history and the fact they have got such a great facility in their town.
“At the moment the theatre is holding its own. We have a good programme which is bringing a lot of people through the doors.”
The Palace first opened on August Bank Holiday 1913, having been founded by popular and successful entrepreneur H K Hales who had built the first theatres in the Potteries and wanted to provide the best entertainment for the people of Redditch so they would not have to travel to Birmingham.
It was designed by Bertie Crewe, one of the leading theatre architects of the day and one of just six working examples of his designs still in existence with others including the notable Shaftesbury Theatre in London.
Described at the time as a ‘mini opera house’ it held 690 seats and audiences packed out performances in its first year but the First World War and The Great Depression posed major threats to the theatre’s survival.
But survive it did with a varied mix of shows from circus acts to Shakespeare and even one performance with a baby elephant.
The rise in popularity of film saw the Palace resemble more of a cinema during the 1920s and most of the ‘30s although Redditch Operatic Society kept the cause of live entertainment going with regular productions until 1939.
Despite a swing back to live theatre - during which a young Felicity Kendal, later to become star of hit sitcom The Good Life, graced the stage - the birth of television combined with rising costs and a lack of artists and good touring shows meant by the 1950s the Palace was in trouble. A last ditch attempt to spark interest with nudes and fan dancers failed and by 1954 it closed with then owner Coun J E Wilkinson claiming the town had ‘lost interest’. An appeal for financial support from Redditch Urban Council failed by just one vote.
It was then used as a roller skating rink, bingo hall and even an indoor market. By the time the Development Corporation arrived in the 1960s to begin work on the New Town it was, in the words of the corporation’s first chairman Sir Edward Thompson, ‘shabby, dirty and dilapidated’. Fortunately plans to sweep the Palace and its heritage away in favour of a modern entertainment complex never materialised. Instead the corporation fell in love with it and restored it as a gift to the town, re-opening it on September 11, 1971.
In 1982 the building controversially ended up in the ownership of a private theatre group, but a lack of interest from Redditch audiences eventually saw it returned to the ownership of Redditch Borough Council which, with the support of lottery funding in 2006, undertook a £4million revamp to provide a modern glass frontage and restore the interior of the auditorium to its former glory.
The programme itself has also had a makeover. The pantomime was handed over to a professional company with big name stars, in have come top comedians television comedians such as Milton Jones, while the team are pushing the boundaries with shows such as The Vagina Monologues.
At the same time there is still space for the amateur community based productions which have been the foundation of the theatre for so long as well as the thriving Palace Youth Theatre.
And while Mr Hughes admits they will never be a destination for the big West End productions, he insists the theatre is capable of attracting top names.
“We are still getting shows you would see go to the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham or The Grand in Wolverhampton,” he said
“Sometimes people have a narrow view of what this place is, they think maybe it won’t be as good but it’s a really lovely intimate atmosphere and you get a good audience reaction, Redditch audiences are very appreciative.”
So as the centenary celebrations begin, the question is in a digital age and at a time of austerity can the Palace continue to defy the odds over the next 100 years?
“I hope so. There have always been people prepared to fight for it or wise enough to see that it would be an asset, they have had a vision of what it can do, where it can go,” Mr Hughes added.
“I hope the people feel it is a genuine asset to the town, I think the town would be a lot poorer without it.”
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